An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009)
I wonder what it is about contemporary British films. Does familiarity breed contempt? Is there any rational grounding for my preference for European cinema or is it mere orientalism? Even when British cinema is done really well -and it’s seldom done better than it is here- there’s something about it that annoys me. The Tasteful music, the same old faces (Richard Griffiths doing his 226th Uncle Monty), the overly literary script, the middlebrow sensibilities, the general lack of audacity. Maybe it’s just me.
This film has enjoyed enough gushing reviews to get me out to the local Odeon, but my inner snob was still dubious about anything with a Nick Hornby screenplay, even if has been handed to a Danish dogme director. The former’s presence is more keenly felt than the latter, Scherfig opting to keep her cover with subdued, simple direction and pretty photography; the family house is a dull bottle green, the outside world a little more showy and intoxicating.
It’s a punchy script with lots of barbed dialogue but the satires of period suburban attitudes can get a bit too Abigail’s Party. At one point, Emma Thompson’s icy headmistress actually asks, “Are you aware that the Jews killed our Lord? We’re all very sorry about what went on in the war, but there’s no excuse for that sort of thing”. Alfred Molina’s hapless dad is the butt of most of these jokes; an excellent turn from an underrated character actor.
The setup is that in 1961, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old from Richmond taking her A-levels. Her domineering parents have their hearts set on getting her into Oxford and she is forbidden a life outside study. When grown-up David (Peter Sarsgaard) sets his sights on her, everything changes, even though we gradually deduce that he’s a gangster of some description.
The main thing to be said for the film is that it gives us a new star in Mulligan, and a very, very watchable one at that. Knowing and vivacious, there’s something of Genevieve Bujold in the way she can juggle the duality of her young girl/young woman part. Her eyes have a most mischievous twinkle to them. At times she’s a pretentious wannabe (waffling about Meursault and dropping French phrases into conversation), at times she’s a mature and assertive young woman (wanting everything to be just right on the occasion of her deflowering, she firmly forbids David from baby talk or pet names).
As her counterpart, I found the smug Sarsgaard eminently punchable upon first sight. He charms everyone (including Jenny’s hitherto controlling parents, who apparently are suddenly happy for their little girl to go off on dirty weekends), but his permanent fishy pout and Colin Firth-with-smallpox-scars features irritated me and he didn’t even have the good grace to sing ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ at any point.
We begin at school, where semi-animated titles set to perky music show schoolgirls balancing books on their heads, playing lacrosse and learning Latin. Jenny is shown to be the class swot, and her father Jack a suffocating grotesque (“Oxford don’t want people who think for themselves”). She likes Graham, a nervous boy from the school orchestra, but when he comes home for tea the parents savage him. Good attention to detail as he accepts a slice of battenberg, and the corner he picks up breaks off- nothing goes right for the lad. Jack and Marjorie have given Jenny a very sheltered childhood. As we see her lying on her back and singing along to Juliette Greco, she confides that her wildest fantasies are to “watch French films and look at paintings”.
David presents himself as a “music lover” when he spots Jenny standing in the rain and offers to give her cello a lift home. Flowers follow, and Jenny’s friends are agog when the two meet in the street and he invites her to a Ravel concert and “supper”. Parental opposition is predictable but what isn’t is how easily David charms them; they are wrongfooted when he walks in at the exact moment Jack is shouting “I’ve got nothing against the Jews…”.
At the concert we meet David’s friends, Danny and Helen (a vacant bimbo played by Rosamund Pike). For all her vapidity, Helen is good at pinpricking Jenny’s teenage pretensions; “You have a French conversation teacher? Is that why you keep speaking in French for no apparent reason?”. Over a bottle of champagne in an opulent jazz club, Jenny is persuaded to play truant so she can join the three at an auction of Pre-Raphaelite paintings next week. When she finally gets home her mum is waiting up, pretending to scrub a stubborn casserole dish. The emotional constipation is a little touching.
After the first date and first truancy, the next frontier is a dirty weekend in Oxford- suggested whilst the four are in Danny’s flat, filled with objets d’art. Meanwhile Jenny has started flunking her mock exams and Molina throws a very spiteful, yet curiously controlled and passionless, tantrum. When Jenny dares to venture downstairs, she is as surprised as we are to find her parents getting drunk with David (“Why are you drinking? It’s not Christmas”). David tells a bullshit story about C.S. Lewis being his university tutor and the dirty weekend is in the bag.
It’s all cod-Brideshead scenes as the boys play badminton in Danny’s front room, waiting for Helen to show Jenny the art of silken undergarments. Once in Oxford the boys drive on past the touristy college shots and head for the nearest pub, where they eye up the old ladies and snigger that there is “lots of business here”; our confirmation, if it takes Jenny a while to catch on, that they’re crooked. In the B&B Jenny tells David she wants to remain a virgin until her 17th birthday and he is an absolute gent, merely asking for a glimpse of her tits.
Le lendemain matin, Jenny sees the boys at work and doesn’t like it. In Blues Brothers dark glasses, they make her wait in the car and emerge from a little old lady’s house with a painting under their coat. “You’re so bourgeois”, David tells her when she storms off in tears. His following speech wins her around although we’re struck by how much he’s starting to sound like Jack (“these restaurants and concerts don’t grow on trees”).
After Oxford, Paris. Jenny takes a shopping list from her schoolfriends (Chanel, Gauloises) and her indiscretion earns her a stern warning from Emma Thompson. Her birthday is grim, the parents and Graham both giving her Latin dictionaries, under David turns up with armfuls of flowers, gifts and the news about Paris. Poor Graham slips out and no-one notices.
Paris is cod-new wave shots of the Eiffel, bookstalls, the steps of Montamartre and Jenny is in her element. Again, she is assertive when David makes the weird suggestion breaking her hymen with a banana (“I’m not losing my virginity to a piece of fruit”). She stands away from him, looking down at their view of the Seine, for the post-coital fag.
At school the English teacher declines to accept her gift from Paris (“because I know where it came from”) and pleads with Jenny to go to Oxford, provoking a tirade against establishment values. “I’m sorry you think I’m dead”, replies the teacher, and we cut to the four partygoers at Walthamstow dog track; Oxford is starting to look distinctly distant. The boys meet a gangster, David is jealous when Danny pays attention to Jenny. He drags her outside and proposes.
Jenny’s teacher is devastated to spot the ring on her finger (“It’ll ruin your life”) but Jack chortles that “you won’t need university now”. Time passes, Jenny leaves school without taking her exams, and then a coincidence reveals to Jenny the dark secret that David has been guarding. When required to face the music, he behaves rather badly. The wedding’s off.
Molina makes a fumbling confessional apology to Jenny’s closed bedroom door, a cup of tea and plate of biscuits in his hand. “All my life I’ve been scared, and I didn’t want you to be scared. That’s why I wanted you to go to Oxford.” It’s touching, it made me weep and while it lasted the film had won me over.
Jenny goes back to Emma Thompson; ready to play the contrite fallen woman, in a wrap-around cardigan and an ankle-length tartan dress. The head enjoys her moment of vindication as she tells Jenny a second chance “would be wasted on you”. In her poky flat, the English teacher agrees to give Jenny private tuition and at this point the film jumps the shark.
A montage of Jenny studying like a demon, with sentimental music, culminates in the offer from Oxford sitting on the breakfast table. Jenny cycles round Oxford in blue jeans as a voiceover tells us she went to university after all and dated boys her own age, before going on to presumably have a wonderful and successful life. But if she gets off scot free and goes to Oxford as if nothing happened, why did this story need to be told? Was there any consequence to anyone’s actions?
“This whole country is bored. There’s no life, colour or fun”, Jenny tells her headmistress at one point. A few private lives are put under the microscope to show the tensions bubbling under Western society before the swinging sixties. An Education is a well crafted film with fine acting, lots to look at and some entertaining dialogue. I just feel that the British cinema of that actual time -Richardson, Schlesinger- already said all of this better (and so does Mad Men for that matter). Worth it for Mulligan and Molina though, and if you liked films like The History Boys you’ll aboslutely eat this one up.